President Trump touched on the late January counter-terrorism raid in Yemen, during which a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed, in his first joint congressional address, bringing Carol Owens, the SEAL’s wife to the gallery as a guest, and insisting again that the raid, questioned for its usefulness, was effective. Trump quoted his defense secretary, James Mattis, saying that the former general told him that “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Ryan Owen’s “legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump told the Congress. “To those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform.”
The slain SEAL’s father, who has been publicly critical of Trump and the mission, questioning why Trump ordered it so early in his administration and for what purpose, was not at the address. He previously declined to join Trump when the president greeted the return of his son’s body. Anonymous senior officials, meanwhile, told NBC News they weren’t aware of any “actionable intelligence” generated by the raid, which has yielded more coverage of Yemen, which has been embroiled for the last year and a half in a civil war in which U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is involved, and which has been the site of U.S. counter-terrorism operations for at least the last six years.
As recently as late 2014, on the eve of the Yemen civil war, President Obama and U.S. counterterrorism officials were pointing to U.S. actions in Yemen as a model for a new type of counterterrorism—one with a lighter footprint and limited engagement. Since the collapse of the U.S.-backed authoritarian government in Aden, mentions of Yemen have dropped off. Neither major presidential candidate in 2016 was asked a single question about Yemen during the course of the campaign.
Trump’s presidency is changing that dynamic, with the media appearing to offer the Yemen raid more coverage than other raids over recent years that sometimes also ended with U.S. deaths. (There were also a number of reported civilian deaths, including of women and children, at the Yemen raid, this too is not unique—the U.S. military says it is investigating). The raid also appears to have yielded more leaks from within the military about it. Trump faced criticism earlier today for appearing to evade responsibility for the raid, repeatedly referring to generals and how “they lost Ryan,” as the New York Post reported.
Trump also laid out more broadly his vision for foreign policy, saying it calls for “a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world” and involved “American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.
“We strongly support NATO,” Trump told the Congress, saying allies had an obligation to “meet their financial obligations” and insisting that the money was already “pouring in.” In fact, European leaders have made comments skeptical of Trump’s demands, which include for NATO allies to increase their spending to 2 percent of GDP, a funding target set by NATO itself. Some European countries have begun to increase their military spending over the last year, part of the impetus for which inevitably came from the increased focus on allies paying their fair share Trump brought to bear during the campaign. But while Mattis’ delivery of the U.S. message about NATO allies meeting their obligations has been backed by the head of NATO, it has not yet specifically yielded promises to increase spending, let alone any actual increase in spending, despite the ultimatum Mattis gave about the U.S. moderating its commitment. The Trump administration should not cover for European allies by overstating their newfound commitments to their own defense, and be prepared to moderate its commitments, something it should consider doing whether or not NATO Europe increases its own.
“We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific,” Trump continued, “to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.”
“We will respect historic institutions,” he added, “but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations,” a sharp break from the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that has developed since the end of the Cold War and that has led the United States into many a quagmire. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will meet such new rhetoric with new policies—there’s not much evidence of it so far, and Trump’s interest in increasing military spending, which makes such an interventionist foreign policy possible and even creates incentives for U.S. policy makers to pursue it. Such a posture on spending is probably the exact opposite of the one needed to actually impose the kinds of restraint on U.S. foreign policy makers that Trump’s rhetoric suggests.
“Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people,” Trump continued, taking the long-standing U.S. rhetorical commitment to freedom around the world in a different, refreshing direction: “America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict—not more.”
“We must learn from the mistakes of the past,” Trump told Congress to applause, “we have seen the war and destruction that have raged across our world.”
It’s unclear what Trump believes those mistakes to be—he has consistently brought up his opposition to the war in Iraq on the campaign trail and even after taking office as president, but has rarely made a clear-eyed connection between that and a broader non-interventionist policy. Trump followed up on his comments by insisting that “the only long-term solution for these humanitarian disasters is to create the conditions where displaced persons can safely return home and begin the long process of rebuilding.” It’s far from certain that the creation of safe zones would not further destabilize the countries in which the U.S. tries to impose them. While Trump has made positive comments about Putin and optimistic comments about Russia-U.S. relations, he should not conflate his intent with the reality on the ground, which may not be amenable to U.S. involvement in imposing safe zones despite the change in rhetoric.
“America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align,” Trump said, “we want harmony and stability, not war and conflict.” During the campaign, Trump indicated he would be open to a congressional resolution authorizing the war against ISIS. A bipartisan group of members of Congress is urging Speaker Ryan to arrange with Trump for such a resolution, as well as one for Yemen, or, absent cooperation with the White House, to bring up other war resolutions proposed by members of Congress. Congress will have to reassert its congressional role in war making if there’s to be a chance that Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric, which is markedly different from his immediate predecessors, will translate to a markedly different, and less destructive, foreign police.
“We want peace, wherever peace can be found,” Trump told the Congress. “America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world. Hopefully, the 250th year for America will see a world that is more peaceful, more just and more free.” Such results will require a sustained commitment by the Trump administration, active involvement by the Congress, and a renewed interest in U.S. foreign policy by American voters and activists. With the right effort, it’s possible, but it won’t be as easy as just adopting new rhetoric.